Thursday, December 31, 2009

Another Year-End Thanksgiving

Although I celebrate the traditional U.S. Thanksgiving in November, here in Blogworld I take the opportunity of New Year's Eve to express gratitude for the people and events that made the past year good.

Top of the list are my wife Karen, my daughters Laura and Robin, and my larger family of sisters, dad, aunt, in-laws, cousins, and nephews. Everyone managed to stay pretty healthy and happy this year, which I don't take for granted.

Thanks to friends and fellow travelers in the comics world, including Mike Lynch, Otis Frampton, Jeff Kinney, Paul Giambarba, Stephan Pastis, Richard Pini, Neil Kleid, MK Czerwiec, Sarah Leavitt, and many others whom I may have met only briefly (including Nick Meglin, John Shableski, Carol Tyler, and Paul Dini) but were invariably kind. Others whose blogs provide regular entertainment and education. Also, my online communities at ToonTalk, rec.arts.comics.strips, and the Wisenheimer for their camaraderie and complaints.

Thanks to readers and especially commenters on this here blog, because it's nice to hear more than an echo when shouting out into the void. Especially my regulars Mike Peterson, Sherwood Harrington, Ronniecat, Marion Deeds, Jennifer (Namowal), Mike (Sligo), Mary Ellen (Xtreme English), Ronnie Peterson, assorted persistent lurkers (I see you there!), and others. Also, people who've supported my new 2009 efforts on Facebook, especially Jim O'Kane and Nancy Gleason (thanks for all the photos!), and everyone who signed up as a friend or fan. It's been especially great to hear from old friends.

Big thanks, affection and respect for the people at Abrams ComicArts who made me a second-time author in 2009, including boss Michael Jacobs, publisher Steve Tager, publicist Amy Franklin, designer Neil Egan, and especially my friend and editor Charlie Kochman, whose wedding to the wonderful Rachel I was honored to attend. Still don't know what took him so long. If we don't work together again in 2010, it won't be my fault.

Thanks to the owners of Four-Eyed Frog Books in Gualala, Judy Weinberg and everyone at the Toledo Museum of Art, and the organizers of the Miami Book Fair International, who gave me opportunities to speak and maybe sell a few books. Likewise to the journalists who thought I'd make a good interview subject and spread the word through print, radio and web, hope I didn't disappoint. Also to the people who reviewed WHTTWOT; although I'm naturally more thankful for those who loved it than those who didn't, I don't think giving my book a bad review necessarily makes you a bad person. But it does increase the odds.

People who bought and read WHTTWOT, especially those who took the time to tell me I captured the story of their lives. One thing I've learned from both my books is that making that intimate, mysterious, one-on-one connection with a reader is the best reward of all. The second-best reward is money.

People who continue to discover Mom's Cancer and tell others about it. That book has an enduring impact that sometimes surprises me, and is unimaginably gratifying.

My real-life friends who suggest dates, invite me to parties, drop me e-mails, and otherwise make sure I have a life despite all evidence to the contrary. Jonas, I owe you lunch.

I'm thankful for our cat Marbles, whose loss is a fresh wound of absence keenly felt.

Everyone I forgot: it's not you, it's me. I'm getting older. Thank you all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Good Good Kitty

Back in July, I wrote about our poor sick kitty Marbles, who'd been diagnosed with thyroid trouble and kidney failure. She was acutely ill, and our immediate concern was keeping her alive while her main human, my daughter Robin, was away for six weeks of archeology field school. We did. With daily medication and subcutaneous fluid injections, she survived until Robin returned and then another five months besides, until this morning.

Marbles was our "beta" cat. Her sister Rose is our "alpha," the boss of the pride (while Amber the Simple Cat is our "lower-case omega" cat). However, Rose subcontracted home security to Marbles, who performed her duties diligently. No bird, squirrel, dog or cat could pass by a window without drawing her laser gaze, no visitor could cross our home's threshold without first passing her inspection. Some visitors didn't; although she never took a bite or scratch out of anyone, there were a couple of people she just didn't care for who came to fear her hiss. Marbles's affection was selective and precious. I felt honored to earn almost as much of it as my girls did.

Some people get silly about their pets. I never confused my pets for my children, nor forgot that taking on a dog or cat means knowingly taking on heartbreak 10 or 15 years down the road. We are nevertheless heartbroken. Marbles fought for life last summer while Robin was away, and continued to fight after my daughters returned to college in the fall. The girls said so many "final farewells" to Marbles it seemed she might never call their bluff. In the end she waited until we were all together, and even until after Christmas, more than fulfilling the bargain I made with her in July that if she survived the month she could play it any way she wanted. I can't help but believe that Marbles died doing what she did best: looking out for her family.

Master of intimidation.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dunk Us All in Bowls of Barley

Above is this year's drawing for our family Christmas card, featuring, as it has for 21 straight years, my twin girls. The cards make a real neat family history all strung together on a knotted ribbon across our living room wall.

Below is a bit of poetic whimsy that's been a ritual on my blog each Christmas Eve since waaay back in 2005. Every beloved tradition starts small. My best wishes to you, thanks for reading my stuff.

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

--Walt Kelly

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buster Keaton's "One Week"

Now this might be worth 20 minutes of your time: a clever, witty, silent two-reeler made by Buster Keaton in 1920 (he was about 25 at the time) titled "One Week," courtesy of Mark Evanier. Of all the silent film comedians, Keaton is by far my favorite and the one whose work holds up best today, I think. Keaton's masterpiece "The General" (1927) is one of my Top Five favorite films ever, and "Sherlock Jr." is brilliant as well.

A few things that I think make "One Week" great:

As with all Keaton films, special effects are minimal and most stunts are performed by the stars. What you see is what happened: the cars, the house, the trains are all real. I think that gives the viewing experience an authenticity, immediacy, and tension that no computer-generated effects can match. They literally couldn't make 'em like this today.

The young married couple played by Keaton and Sybil Seely is very sweet and feels completely modern to me. I buy their relationship; they're in this mess together. Seely is particularly charming: smart, vivacious, sexy, and an equal partner to Keaton's hapless groom.

The unlucky newlyweds' build-it-yourself home.

Speaking of sexy, there's a famous scene at about the 10-minute mark that is one of the wittiest, most audacious moments of filmmaking ever. Seely is scrubbing up in the bathtub when she drops her soap on the floor. Her dilemma is evident: how will she pick up the soap without exposing herself to the audience? Keaton's solution: an unknown hand (it's not the groom's, he's on the roof at the time) enters the frame to cover the lens while Seely grabs the soap and settles back into the tub. Then, to complete the fourth-wall breaking, she looks directly at the camera and gives us a flirty little giggle. The joke's on us, but we're in on it as well. It's very "meta."
Seely flashing us a saucy smile after retrieving her soap.

In addition, the cartoonist in me loves the bizarre parallel world right out of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons (which wouldn't be around for 20 or 30 more years, remember)--a world where a car jack can lift a house so it can roll on barrels, one burly man can hoist a piano onto his shoulder, and nobody gets killed leaping through second-story doors into thin air.

In 2008, "One Week" was added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, marking it as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant work to be preserved for all time." I agree. I know silent films aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if you're not one of those people I think this one's a treasure and worth a look.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Working Hard for the Hypothetical Money

Time for another of my now-traditional "too busy to post" posts, which is actually season-appropriate now:


The ol' blog's a little less active than I'd like because I'm working on big project deadlines for my real job, trying to write a first draft of a new graphic novel for my pretend job (more later!), plus enjoying the general Christmas hubbub and fol-de-rol.
My girls are recovering very well from their wisdom teeth extractions on Monday--much better than any of us expected, I'd say. They're diligent patients and have been rewarded with surprisingly bearable pain, swelling, and down time. We think we can probably finance grad school by selling their unused Vicodin on the black market, although it might also make a swell stocking stuffer. Depends on how my shopping goes the next few days.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Poor Poor Babies

Our daughters got home from college for Christmas break late last night. Early this morning we rousted them both out of bed to get their wisdom teeth pulled. Four teeth each, eight teeth total. Karen's on her way to the oral surgeon with one girl now, I'll be leaving with the second in about an hour. If I'm not around much the next couple of days, it's because I'm applying ice packs and preparing soft foods.

Even when your children are old enough to understand and voluntarily go along with the plan, you'd still rather take pain yourself than inflict it on them. But on the plus side, since that's not possible, it means more hard crunchy snacks for me. Woohoo!
UPDATE: Everybody's fine.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

When Worlds Collide

Added to the long list of Things I Did Not Know:

George Lucas asked David Lynch to direct "Return of the Jedi." It's very difficult, but mind-meltingly fun, to imagine how that movie might have turned out.

The only thing I know about "Return of the Jedi" that most people don't is that I went to college with a super-nice girl who played an Ewok. She was a little person and we worked the same student job together--I drove double-decker buses and she was one of the conductors in the back who got passengers on and off, signaled stops, punched transfers, etc. During summer vacations she went off and made movies (and has continued to, building a very successful career in film and TV). You know that scene where two Ewoks get blasted and one crawls over to its dead mate? She was the Ewok who lived. I'd mention her name but I'm afraid she'd Google herself, read this post, and tell y'all she has no idea who I am, which would completely ruin one of my few "brush with greatness" stories.

I worked my way through college driving these authentic old London double-deckers for a university transit system. Very unusual clutches. Drivers sit in a little cab in the front (right side, naturally) while conductors stand on the platform in the back. One of the best jobs I ever had.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Art of Paul Giambarba

Is this guy cool, or what?

I wrote about my buddy Paul Giambarba in early November (scroll way down or click here). Paul is a writer/artist/designer/illustrator who, among many other accomplishments, designed the packaging, branding, and "feel" that helped make Polaroid cameras a big hit in the '50s and '60s. He was contacted by a team trying to revive Polaroid film after the company recently stopped making it, and on December 18 will be the star of a special event at the International Center of Photography in New York City (details on Paul's blog).

Check it out. The special "Paul Giambarba Edition" will comprise 15 kinds of original Polaroid film, carefully preserved and redesigned by Paul for the occasion, plus a special-edition camera kit designed by Paul. It's both a celebration of Polaroid's contribution to photography, culture and design, and a terrific recognition for Paul. If I lived 3000 miles closer I'd be there. If you're in the New York area and that sounds intriguing, stop by to see Paul between 5 and 7:30 p.m., and tell him I sent you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Art of Charlie Kochman

There's a nice profile/interview with Editor Charlie at the Shelf Awareness website that I think gives some insight into my publisher's approach to comics. Publishing houses have different sensibilities--you can look at a book and think, "Oh, that's a Pantheon book" or "that's a Fantagraphics book"--and I can similarly spot Abrams books without quite being able to articulate what they have in common. I mean, aside from "stuff Charlie thinks is cool." Or maybe that's it exactly.

Charlie was kind enough to mention me in two contexts. First, along with Jeff Kinney, as an example of someone crossing over from webcomics. Second, as a contrast to the subject of the 2010 Abrams book The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death:

Kochman differentiates Hernandez's work, for instance, from that of Brian Fies. "As much as I love Brian Fies, he's not ready for a book about his art; he hasn't been around long enough. Jaime has been."

Quite right. As much as I love Charlie, if he ever suggests doing an Art of book on me, no matter how long I've been around, our relationship is over. What a horrifying idea; what an awful thing to do to a friend. Never gonna happen. (I can delete this post later, right?) Now Kinney, on the other hand . . .

It's a good article. Check it out if that kind of "inside baseball" thing interests you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hard Sell

You know what would be an excellent Christmas* gift for the science nut/space fan/history buff/pop culture maven/comic book collector/nostalgic baby boomer/geek/nerd/evil genius/dashing hero/super-cool person in your life?

My book.

I'm just sayin'.

* Also appropriate for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, Al Hijra, Ashura, Las Posadas, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santa Lucia Day, Oatmeal Muffin Day (Dec. 19), or National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day (Dec. 16) (latter two only valid if book is accompanied by an oatmeal muffin or covered in chocolate, respectively).

Monday, December 7, 2009

ComicArts Book Club Q&A

WHTTWOT was the topic of discussion at last Thursday's meeting of the Abrams ComicArts Book Club, hosted by my publisher Abrams and Bergen Street Comics. If I could've dropped into Ozzie's Coffee Shop in Brooklyn for the evening I would've, but the best I could do from a continent away was agree to answer any questions that came up. The organizers said they had a good turnout. I think a book club dedicated to graphic novels is a great idea, and I wish them much good luck.
Here are their fine questions and my questionable answers:

Q. Mom’s Cancer is very different from Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. How did you transition from a personal narrative about a mother/son relationship to a fictional father/son tale? Are parts of Whatever Happened similar to your experiences growing up?

BF: The recognition and modest success of Mom’s Cancer opened doors to the possibility of building a writing/cartooning career I’ve wanted my whole life. So: What next? I’d done a book about my family and had no interest in a sequel or anything else autobiographical. I think everyone has one good story to tell about their lives but almost no one has two. I’m not that interesting, and neither are you. I told my story.

Here’s my philosophy of trying to make a living at creative pursuits: no matter how good you are or how hard you work, there’ll always be a million people who draw and write (or sculpt or paint or sing or play piano) better than you. The only thing you really have to offer is your own unique perspective, that little island of things you care passionately about that only you can stand on. I'm pretty sure that's true.
So just talking with my editor Charlie Kochman, trying to answer the “What next?” question, I decided that my island was the central theme of WHTTWOT: What happened to that can-do optimism I grew up with as a child of the Space Age, the sense that tomorrow could be better than today and science could help make it happen? I still feel that way, but it seems no one else does. I thought I had something to say about that. Beating my island analogy to death, I think once you figure out what your message is, you put it in a bottle, throw it into the waves, and hope enough other people find it and relate to it to make it worth doing.

Bits of the book are drawn from personal memories and experience. There are many nods to my family history, which no one else would get. Although I never saw a rocket launch in person and didn’t have that kind of relationship with my dad, the core of the story—that disappointment that I’m never going to live on the Moon or get my flying car and jetpack, as well as the love of comics and futuristic pop culture—is very much me.

Q. Despite it being a novel, a large portion of the book is composed of historical and scientific facts. Did you ever consider a non-fiction format instead?

BF: No. But the characters of Pop, Buddy, Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid did emerge surprisingly late in the writing process. I’m not sure, but it’s possible my first proposal to my editor didn’t mention them at all.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? attacks the question posed by its title from three different directions: a recap of technological and historical developments from 1939 to 1975; how those developments affected people’s lives; and the important influence pop culture had on shaping the expectations and realization of the future. The non-fiction historical stuff is only one-third of the tale, and I didn’t think was enough to support a book. Pop and Buddy are my window into the lives of people living through those times, and the “Space Age Adventure” comics-within-the-comic speak for the pop culture influences. Each thread covers ground and says things the other two couldn't. If the reader focuses on just one thread, they’re only getting a third of the story.

One reason Pop and Buddy age abnormally slowly is that their relationship mirrors the arc that (I argue) society followed between 1939 to 1975, from optimistic technological utopianism to pessimistic, cynical dystopianism. The reason the characters are in the book at all is that I thought those social changes sounded very much like a father-son relationship evolving from unquestioning worship to snide disillusion. So I wanted to say something about this 36-year period of history by reflecting it in about 10 years of a kid growing up, then bring the three threads together in a speculative, hopeful, sci-fi future at the end.

Having said that, in retrospect I kind of regret that WHTTWOT is called a “graphic novel,” although that’s the generic term for this sort of big comic book, because I think it led some people to expect something it was never intended to be. If you’re expecting an apple but bite into a peach, you might not like it even if it’s a pretty good peach. WHTTWOT has gotten some great reviews, but a couple of reviewers mentioned that they might have appreciated it more as an essay. To which I’d answer, “Who says it isn’t? Why can’t it be a graphic essay?” It poses a question, makes an argument, offers evidence, reaches conclusions. When I build a time machine, I might go back and put “A Graphic Polemic” on the cover. Let ‘em figure that one out.

Q. Who do you see as the ideal audience for the book? Did you intend this for younger readers as well as adults?

BF: It’s certainly written to be accessible to young readers, as was Mom’s Cancer. I’m very proud that Mom’s Cancer won the top award in Germany for children’s non-fiction literature, and that the Texas Library Association recently recommended WHTTWOT for students in grades 6 through 12, even though I didn’t intend either to be a children’s book.

However, I honestly wouldn’t expect a young reader to be interested in WHTTWOT’s subject matter. Maybe a bright 10 year old. As I hinted in a previous answer, I basically wrote it for me, and hoped there were enough people out there like me to justify my publisher’s investment. My goal was to write a book that I would not be able to put down if I saw it in a bookstore. I’m not surprised that the people who seem to be responding most positively are those who grew up through some of the same times and ask themselves the same questions I did. Or, as my wife says, boomer nerds.

Q. The omission of a mother figure stirred up some debate. Why did you make this choice? Did you anticipate strong reactions?

BF: Ah yes, whatever happened to Mom? I didn't anticipate strong reactions or any reactions at all, which was foolish of me because it was the first question my wife asked. I should’ve known.

There was a Mom in an early draft of the book. I drew exactly one panel with her. Mom’s role in the story was basically to provide exposition and ask questions. When I decided that Buddy would narrate the book in captions, Mom suddenly had a lot less to do. As I worked, putting words into the mouths of Pop and Buddy was fun and easy, while thinking of things for Mom to say and do was very hard, and always seemed to detour from the story I wanted to tell. In keeping with my notion that cartooning is about distilling things to their essence, I finally decided that Mom wasn’t essential to the story and cut her. Since my first book was all about a Mom and other strong women, I didn't feel like I particularly owed the universe a Mom in my second book as well.

The only remaining evidence of Buddy's Mom.
I suspect she would've resembled Officer Mooney.

I really didn’t expect anyone to notice or care, any more than someone watching “The Wizard of Oz” wonders what happened to Dorothy’s parents. I didn’t see any point in having Pop and Buddy explain what happened to Mom because they both already knew, and any exposition about it would’ve been unnaturally forced (“Say, do you remember that time when Mom and I . . . ?”). Mom might be dead, divorced, separated, or otherwise out of Pop’s and Buddy’s lives. My theory is that she’s still around, just upstairs, at work, or out of the house when we happen to look in on her fellas. Buddy has to be living with someone while Pop’s away during World War II. And when Pop and Buddy are building their little construction project in 1955, there are three cots in the basement, not two.

Q. You’ve obviously done a ton of research. What were your best/most interesting/most surprising sources?

BF: Both the beauty and curse of doing a graphic novel is that nothing goes on the page unless you mean to put it there. I took my research very seriously and filled up three thick binders, probably a couple thousand pages in all, with references for everything. If I drew a cola bottle or street light, I wanted it to be right for the time and place. For later decades, I was able to draw on my own family photos and personal memories. A lot of the furniture and such from the 1950s on were things my family had.

I especially loved finding material and learning more about the 1939 World’s Fair. As I mentioned in the Endnotes, I watched hours of public-domain home movies shot at the fair, and bought ephemera like maps, pins, and a little felt pennant that I put to good use. I can’t describe how happy I was to stumble across the actual circuit diagram for the RCA television that debuted at the fair, which I used as a graphic backdrop for the two-page spread on Pages 14 and 15.

In general, I experienced this weird phenomenon in which information and resources emerged exactly when I needed them. For example, just when I started to color the “Space Age Adventure” comic books, a veteran comic book pro posted on his blog a very detailed description of how the old comics were colored that was enormously useful to me. There were the home movies and circuit diagram. World War II propaganda posters. Some of the space photos in later chapters. Whenever I needed something, the universe seemed to drop it in my lap. It was almost eerie.

Since the book came out, I’ve been gratified to hear from a few folks who were first-hand witnesses to events I depicted and told me I got it right. MAD Magazine’s Al Jaffee attended the World’s Fair as a young man getting ready to go to war, and wrote to tell me I made him feel as if he were right there again. Imagine what it means as a cartoonist to have Al Jaffee say you did good.

Thanks for reading my book and engaging it enough to ask thoughtful questions. Much appreciated! I’ll be happy to follow up here, elsewhere, or privately.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Crossing the Porcelain Rubicon

A line was crossed in my home this week, casting me adrift in an abyss from which, I fear, there is no return.

There was a time, in this civilization of ours, when a man was the master of his technology. He could sharpen his axe, hitch his wagon, fix his plow. Well into the 20th century, he could lift the hood of his car to do a tune-up and fix a carburetor. He could open the back panel of his TV or radio, pull out a tube, and go to the hardware store for a replacement (I remember shops equipped with self-service tube testers as late as the '80s). Many a mechanic or inventor was born tinkering in a garage or on a workbench spattered with silver drops of solder. Today? Everything comes hermetically sealed in black boxes, with dire warnings of electrocution--or worse, a voided warranty--if cracked open. These are sad times for a curious, mechanically minded person. You simply can't tell anymore how something works just by looking at it and fiddling around.

Which is to say, I no longer understand my toilet.

Because California is inconveniently a desert with chronic drought that people keep moving to anyway, our local water agency is running an incentive program to replace everyone's old water-guzzling toilets with modern low-flow models. Free! When we made the call, we didn't realize the offer was really a Trojan Horse meant to sneak the water cops through the door so they could also install low-flow aerators and showerheads on every outlet. So be it. They left us the old fixtures, and The Man will take away my right to a long, hot, gut-punching shower when he can pry my cold, dead body out of the stall.

The anxiety of installing a low-flow toilet comes from wondering if it'll take care of everything it's supposed to, if you know what I mean. The plumber reassured me with statistics about volumes and pressures versus how many grams of matter (if you still know what I mean) that people of different sexes, sizes, and dietary habits are apt to produce (yeah, I'm pretty sure you know what I mean). This guy really knew his poo, and I felt reassured that we were in the hands of a master, even if I didn't actually want to touch his hands.

Anyway, I was a quick convert. These toilets are amazing! With a light tap on the handle, the pressure-assist model we selected roars like a Space Shuttle at launch. WHOOOSH! Curtains flutter in distant rooms. In the backyard, autumn leaves cascade from our trees. Somewhere in Africa, a bull elephant recognizes the low lonesome call of a mate and looks longingly across the ocean. Curious to learn how such marvels were accomplished, I lifted the lid and eagerly gazed into the sacred heart of the porcelain ark.

A black box. Another featureless, seamless, impenetrable case, the mysteries of which a non-professional dare not plumb.

This sad fact renders me almost completely helpless in the face of the everyday technology that surrounds me. I can still confidently tackle minor electrical work--changing switches and installing light fixtures and such--and pound nails and patch holes and glue PVC. But I'm afraid that the humble toilet, whose elegant engineering I understood as previous generations once knew the engine block of a Ford or the coils of an old Philco radio, has evolved beyond my comprehension. The day I have to call a plumber to fix my toilet--and that day will come, my friends--will be the day a tiny piece of the manly pioneering spirit that made this country great withers in humiliation inside me.

What Immortal Hand or Eye Dare Frame Thy Fearful Symmetry?

I guess I'm the last person on the Internet to see this, and only because my pal Mike Lynch posted it this morning. I can only think of a few regular readers who'll dig it (hi, girls! XO, Dad). But sometimes you've gotta do what you've gotta do.

Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Academic Follies

My twin girls, who with two of their artistic friends helped me digitally color WHTTWOT, will be graduating from college next year and are now applying to grad schools. I think they're doing it because they noticed their Mom and I still have some money left.

In any case, they're busy submitting applications, sending transcripts, wrangling recommendations, and writing essays. One very large, well-known public institution to which they're both applying (in different programs) requires them to write an essay in response to a prompt that really rubs me the wrong way everytime I read it:

Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.

I've got no beef with the first sentence. They want to know who you are beyond your transcript. Great. The rest seems utterly, fatuously, ridiculously irrelevant. What does any of that have to do with the quality of your intellect or your fitness to contribute to an academic field? Could Einstein or Salk have cleared that hurdle at age 21? Could the university's own faculty?

What if you instead spent your time fighting forest fires, rescuing stray animals, writing novels, caring for the elderly, discovering comets, starting a company, playing championship tennis, working on the family farm, serving three tours of duty in Iraq, flipping burgers to pay tuition, or sailing solo around the world? Or, heaven forbid, studying? Couldn't one be a good citizen, interesting person, and outstanding scholar ready to contribute to an academic field without "advancing equitable access . . . (to) groups that have been historically underrepresented?" Doesn't that seem overtly, inappropriately political in that it assumes such efforts are the best, highest uses for one's time, or that everyone worth admitting would find them worthwhile?

My wife tries to calm me down by pointing out that the school is trying to build an academic community, and has the right to seek qualities that it thinks best contribute. I get that for a private institution; if you apply to a Christian Bible college, you'd best be ready to praise the Lord. But this is a public university. Should it really be judging applicants based on their commitment to a very narrow vision of social justice?

If I were in my daughters' position, I'd be tempted--seriously
tempted--to answer the first sentence as earnestly as possible, and the rest with one of the following:

1. I've overcome no significant barriers because I was raised by parents who worked hard, saved their money, made sacrifices, and provided guidance so I wouldn't have to. I tried to be prepared for changing circumstances, and planned ahead to meet academic challenges and solve problems before they arose. It worked.

2. I have tried to "advance equitable access to higher education for women" by being one of them and working extremely hard for the last 16 years. (Since the large majority of U.S. university graduates are now women, my efforts have succeeded. You're welcome.) I did nothing to discourage any member of any underrepresented group from working just as hard.

3. I have in fact done much community service work, but I did it in the spirit of charity, with the belief that such aid is a private matter between me and those who receive it, without any expectation that I would materially benefit from it myself. To honor that spirit and out of respect for those on whose behalf I worked, I respectfully decline to respond.

4. I didn't have time because I was doing other things I thought were more important. If you want to ask me about them sometime, I'll be happy to tell you.

5. None of your damn business.

Do you think I'd get in?